Republicans threaten to hold up confirmation of new science head for Environmental Protection Agency

The Obama administration’s process of appointing government officials to US science agencies, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has become increasingly politicised in recent years. A particular target of the president’s political opponents in Congress is the combined job of the EPA’s science adviser and head of the agency’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), which supports research programmes that identify the most pressing environmental health research needs.

Republican leaders in the Senate have now threatened to block the confirmation of Obama’s nominees to fill three key jobs at the EPA, including Thomas Burke as the agency’s joint science adviser and ORD director. If appointed, Burke who is currently acting EPA science adviser will be responsible for managing the agency’s scientific research arm and laboratories. This is Burke’s third nomination.

At a hearing of the Senate environment and public works committee on 11 June, chairman Jim Inhofe referenced a National Academies report from a few years back that warned about a potential conflict of interest with the appointment of an EPA science adviser who simultaneously serves as an assistant EPA administrator in charge of the ORD. The report suggested that ORD resources that are applied to expanding staff and expediting science reviews, as well as risk assessment, may divert resources from longer-term programme development and research. However, the reason that Burke’s confirmation might be held up has to do with a larger issue of unresponsiveness on the part of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to congressional requests for information, according to Inhofe.

At the hearing, Inhofe and his Republican colleague Dan Sullivan accused the EPA of repeatedly evading requests for information, and they suggested that thwarting the administration’s nominations is their only recourse. ‘There are real instances of the EPA usurping the power of the Congress,’ Sullivan stated, adding that the agency has failed to supply the underlying legal opinions that his committee has requested.

‘Do you think it is a legitimate exercise of our authority as the Congress, as the oversight committee, to put a hold on your nominations and confirmations until we actually get legitimate answers from the EPA administrator,’ Sullivan asked the witnesses, including Burke. None were prepared to answer his question. ‘I don’t know of any other leverage that we have,’ affirmed Inhofe.

But Democrats on the committee objected, saying these nominees are not controversial and have been awaiting confirmation for too long. The last head of EPA’s ORD was Paul Anastas, who concurrently acted as the office’s director and the EPA science adviser from early 2010 to February 2012.

Obama first nominated Anastas – a Yale University chemist who has been dubbed the father of green chemistry – in May 2009. However, Anastas faced an arduous appointment process as unrelated formaldehyde risk assessment politics delayed confirmation.

Although no permanent ORD director has been named since Anastas’ departure, Glenn Paulson – a former associate dean for research at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s (UMDNJ) School of Public Health – succeeded him as the EPA’s science adviser in April 2012.

Beyond this confirmation process, there has been much antagonism between the EPA and Republican leaders on various key congressional committees. Again, disputes have centred on responses to inquiries about EPA regulatory decisions.